The Multiplication Technique: Multiplying Your Problems Away

by | Mar 3, 2014 | Attribute Dependency, Idea Generation, Innovation Sighting, Jacob Goldenberg, The Wheel | 0 comments

One very effective, but nonintuitive way to use Multiplication is to multiply the most offending component in a problem and then change it so that it solves the problem. Yes, you actually make more of the very thing you are trying to discard. The key is to duplicate the nastiest component and imagine a scenario in which that copy could offer useful characteristics. Two researchers used this very technique and revolutionized the way we cope with dangerous insect species today.

Diseases transmitted by the tsetse fly kill more than 250,000 people every year. If you’re lucky enough not to die from its bite, you’re almost certain to contract sleeping sickness, a horrifying illness that causes victims’ brains to swell and a host of other painful, debilitating symptoms. People who contract this disease become confused and anxious. They lose physical coordination and experience severe disruptions in their sleep cycles. Sufferers are so fatigued that they typically sleep all day yet lie awake at night with insomnia. If left untreated, sleeping sickness causes victims to steadily deteriorate mentally until they lapse into comas and eventually die.

Tsetse flies have plagued Earth’s inhabitants for more than thirty- four million years. Yet a simple act of Multiplication can wipe them out of an entire region in less than a year.

The story begins in the 1930s. Two scientists at the US Department of Agriculture in Menard, Texas, Raymond Bushland and Edward Knipling, were seeking a way to eliminate the screwworms that were devastating cattle herds across the Midwest. They wanted to do this without resorting to spraying deadly chemicals on both milk and beef cows. By the early 1950s, these insects were costing American meat and dairy farmers $200 million annually. As with most of the techniques in this book, the problem would not have been solved without breaking some form of fixedness—in this case, Functional Fixedness. Until Bushland and Knipling joined forces, scientists’ ability to think creatively was stymied by the fixed idea that when male insects mate with female insects, they produce offspring. This meant that, from the point of view of eradicating the disease, mating was considered a purely negative phenomenon.

Bushland and Knipling turned this idea on its head. By multiplying the males, but—again, a critical aspect of Multiplication—changing a key characteristic in a nonobvious way, they transformed male screwworms into a deadly force against their own species. The solution was elegant and deceptively simple. Bushland and Knipling sterilized a batch of the male screwworms. They then released the sterile males into the US heartland. Naturally, when these screwworms mated, they produced no offspring, and the screwworm population steadily declined year after year. Thanks to Bushland and Knipling’s sterile insect technique, or S.I.T.—not to be confused with the SIT (Systematic Inventive Thinking) method—the United States eliminated the screwworm completely by 1982. The same technique is now used to attack other insect species that threaten livestock, fruits, vegetables, and crops. As S.I.T. uses no chemicals, leaves no residues, and has no effect on nontarget species, it is considered extremely environmentally friendly.

But back to the tsetse flies. Residents of the African island of Zanzibar had suffered for centuries from the ravages of sleeping sickness. Scientists used S.I.T. to multiply a male tsetse fly times tens of thousands. They then changed these “copies” by radiating and sterilizing them, and introduced them to the general fly population. Because tsetse females can mate only once in their life cycle, the sterile males effectively prevented them from reproducing. As the older tsetse flies died off, successive generations became smaller and smaller until they disappeared entirely. In just months, the tsetse flies’ reign of terror was over.

Multiplying is just a fancy word for copying, you say? Is it creative, you wonder? In 1992, Bushland and Knipling were awarded the prestigious World Food Prize in recognition of their remarkable scientific achievement. Former US Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman called their research and the resulting sterile insect technique “the greatest entomological achievement of the twentieth century.”

From Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results